His threat is best understood in the context of McCarthy’s role as the ex-President’s chief protector on Capitol Hill, after helping to scupper an independent commission into the worst attack on US democracy in modern history and joining the whitewash of what happened. He has also made clear he sees Trump as his best hope of capturing the House next November, after several visits to consult with the de-facto GOP leader, who retains a firm hold on his loyal base voters. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has made a different calculus when it comes to retaking the Senate. He also helped thwart that independent commission but has had a much icier relationship with the former President after blaming him for January 6, and Trump on Wednesday called for the Kentucky Republican to be “removed as the leader.”
The idea that a Republican House could simply close telecommunications companies on a whim appears fanciful and lacking any obvious legal basis. The Republican leader might simply have been trying to please his party’s most powerful figure and to engage GOP voters in a new political fight. Nothing would be more Trump-like than stirring the conservative media machine by making a bullying threat that he has no legal capacity or even an inclination to carry out.
Yet McCarthy’s warning was still one of his most extraordinary moves yet in the service of a twice-impeached former President who left office in disgrace after inciting the insurrection based on his multiple lies about election fraud.
In effect, a potential future speaker was warning he could use government power to punish private companies that comply with routine requests by a legally mandated committee probing a political mob that sacked the US Capitol.
Trump’s political machine
This gambit suggests that a McCarthy majority would not just mount aggressive oversight of the Biden administration — for instance, over the Afghanistan withdrawal about which the House GOP leader has been highly critical. He also appears to be signaling that a Republican House would be an extension of Trump’s political machine, ready to do his political dirty work ahead of another possible presidential bid in 2024. The threat may also be a preview of a return of the crushing of constitutional norms that characterized Trump’s White House.
The idea of using power granted by voters to intimidate people or entities who don’t share radical political goals not only raises the possibility of abuses of power and the abandoning of rules and accountability necessary for a corruption-free economy. It is the kind of shake-down tactic that would be more expected in an autocracy like Vladimir Putin’s Russia than in a supposedly functioning democracy like the United States.
“A Republican majority won’t forget,” McCarthy said in his statement about the communications firms on Wednesday, slipping into the mobster speak that his mentor Trump is known for. The minority leader warned that if companies comply with requests to turn over private information, they risk “losing their ability to operate in the United States.” So far, there have been no such requests. The Democratic-led committee, which includes two Republicans who broke with their party to condemn Trump’s anti-democratic behavior, has simply asked telecommunications and social media companies to preserve records in case of future requests, as CNN first reported earlier this week.
McCarthy is on the same page on this issue as Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has a record of spouting conspiracy theories and falsehoods about election fraud and is a favorite of conservative media.
Greene, who has repeatedly called for Biden’s impeachment — a demand not yet supported by McCarthy — told Tucker Carlson on Fox News this week that the firms would be “shut down” for cooperating with the select committee and “that’s a promise.”
Were it not for the events of the last year, this kind of warning coming from a Republican might be shocking but not taken especially seriously. But the idea that a President would inspire an effective coup attempt to try to stay in power after losing an election was unheard of too.
In the seven months since Trump left office, his brand of conservative authoritarianism hasn’t waned. If anything it is getting stronger.
Despite requests from CNN, the House minority leader has not yet publicly provided the text of the federal law he says the firms would be infringing if they cooperate with the select committee, which has subpoena power.
CNN legal analyst Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor, said that McCarthy had no justification for his warning since the law would routinely stipulate that subpoenas from the committee should be complied with.
“McCarthy is just basically talking smack, trying to throw a monkey wrench into this procedure,” Honig said on CNN “Newsroom” on Wednesday.
In the shorter term, the California Republican could attract some form of censure for his comments. Some observers said he could face an investigation himself in the House Ethics Committee for acting in a way that brings the chamber into disrepute. Such a probe, however, could take months and is not likely to produce a meaningful sanction.
McCarthy’s fellow Californian, Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, suggested the House should consider a criminal referral of McCarthy for witness tampering or obstruction of justice. “I’ve prosecuted people for doing less on smaller scale cases,” Swalwell told CNN.
Attorney General Merrick Garland, however, has shown little appetite for taking on such politically radioactive cases.